I like working with language, thinking about it, and thinking about how it can be learned as a second language. I also like working with computers — their writing is much cleaner than mine, their memory so much more reliable, and they are very good for working with language. If I had to state it in a nutshell, everything I do in my research has some connection to grammar — describing, learning, implementing — and to computers. Not to worry, it’s not as nerdy as it sounds.
For a long time, I have been interested in ICALL, which stands for Intelligent Computer Assisted Language Learning. One way to describe ICALL would be to say it is the nexus of CALL and Artificial Intelligence – hence the adjective intelligent in front of CALL. Here, Artificial Intelligence means Natural Language Processing (NLP) – making computers understand (at least the structure of) human language and have them generate human language from some kind of computational data structure – and Student Modeling creating and maintaining a data structure about the learning processes of a student and then using that data structure to infer further information about the student’s learning: what feedback do they need to successfully correct an utterance or what learning material would be most beneficial for them next. For my PhD, I worked on Textana, a research prototype of a grammar checker for students of German. Using a parser Allan Ramsay, my doctoral supervisor, wrote, I tried to improve the system’s ‘knowledge of German’.
After a couple of years, I decided to go a different route with a new project — mocha — which deals with student modeling in ICALL and relies on complexity-scientific approaches to second-language development. We worked on some textual-analysis components to analyze learner texts for complexity, accuracy, and fluency to obtain data for computational learner models. Sounds straightforward and easy, doesn’t it? Rest assured — it was not.
If this sparked your interest in ICALL, Trude and I wrote a book on it.
For many years, I have been involved in the research on and the development of online language learning courses. Together with colleagues at the University of Waterloo, we developed three distance education courses for elementary and intermediate German at university in the early 2000s. This was the Geroline project. We gathered lots of data from our learners and conducted a learning impact study. Yes, we finally figured out that our students did learn something with our online materials. The Geroline materials have now been retired and we have created a new set of four courses based on the Berliner Platz textbook series: two elementary courses (GER 101 and 102) and two intermediate courses (GER 201 and 202) are now up and running. By the way, Geroline’s younger sister is called Gerla. In 2015, we revived Geroline — as a name and in a project. We analyzed ten years of student data from our online courses, to better understand how students transition between online and on-campus and what helps them to do so successfully.
We have tested tablet PCs in language learning, developed and researched an online course for intermediate learners of German in the WatPAL project. The course has been taught from 2003 to 2013 and I used to work with it for smaller CALL research projects. The last one we did was Estila, in which we tested the use of large (research) text corpora for language learning, in particular to foster students’ increasing language awareness.
And last but not least, I am interested in Bilingualism — yes, there is a link to grammar again. The Kitchener Metropolitan Census Area (cities of Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge, where I lived between 2001 and 2017) has the highest proportion of German speakers in Canada. The first ones arrived more than two hundred years ago, the last ones came even later than I did. I am interested in their history,the way they write, the way they think about German and how they learned it.
Oh, and if you like books, of course, there is one on German minorities worldwide, their language, culture, and history. In 2013, we started the Oral History Project, in which we interviewed 126 German immigrants to Waterloo Region. The fruits of our labor — it was a group of 60 researchers and research assistants — are now in the book Germans of Waterloo Region.
If you would like something more formal, there is a brief CV.